When I was being sexually abused I soon learned that pleasing the other person, quickly and in the ways they preferred, would mean that I would be safer. I found it more upsetting to be touched against my will, than to touch the other person. At least I felt I had a marginal amount of control over the non-consensual sex. This is one of the impacts of surviving sexual violence that has been hardest to recover from.
My earliest sexual experiences taught me that my own needs were irrelevant, unimportant and that my body existed to please others. In the present, I struggle to internalize the idea that I have rights, likes, dislikes and the right to say both yes and no in intimate situations. I keep living out what I learned: pleasing the other person is best the way to stay safe. I have a lot of guilt, shame and disgust which I direct towards myself, focusing the hatred on my physical body which at some level I blame for the abuse.
When I was 15-16 and being abused by X, I remember such intense shame. I felt like it was my fault that the abuse was happening, that I was guilty and that my body was to blame.
I remember one late afternoon or evening. I believe it was in the summer, because it was not dark outside yet. I was 15. I was in X’s room. His room was always dark, the blinds always closed. His family was home, which only increased my level of shame as I imagined his parents thinking what a terrible, slutty girl I was. I remember him standing naked at the foot of his bed. There was music playing. There was always music playing, giving the impression of teenagers making out, but in reality, disguising the dark tone of the abuse. I don’t remember how we got there, or how I got home after. I do remember that my shirt was off, I think I was still wearing either a skirt or underwear. He was kissing me, he had his hands on the sides of my head. Then his hands moved more to the top of my head, pushing me down onto my knees and holding me there. His hands were forceful. I didn’t try to fight, but I imagined that if I did, his hands would only have held me tighter. I knew what he was wordlessly “asking” for. Something I’d never done before, but something I’d heard about from older, more experienced cousins and friends. I knew the word for it, but it wasn’t something I was even remotely interested in.
I remember his hands on my head. I remember feeling choked and struggling to breath. I remember the salty taste, and stumbling quickly to the bathroom. The bathroom was brighter, ordinary. A different world. I remember feeling shaky. I stood in front of the white sink. I spat and rinsed my mouth with water. I can’t remember if I cried silently, or if I was beyond crying and only filled with disgust and shame.
I couldn’t think of how to cleanse myself. I remember seeing a plain white bar of soap beside the sink. In desperation, I grabbed it and put it in my mouth, literally trying to wash his taste from my memory. Washing myself clean, spitting the soapy taste back into the sink.
I don’t think it worked. I’m not sure it’s possible to wash away the dirt of being raped. The memory stayed with me, even 20 years later it is vivid as if it were yesterday.
The saddest thing is that teenage me internalized it all. Never told a soul. Blamed myself and didn’t spend a lot of time considering X’s responsibility.
I remember going back to his room. It happened again and again over the months that followed. He didn’t have to hold me down every time. I knew what was expected and I did it. It’s so important for people who have not lived through sexual violence to understand that just because a person doesn’t fight back, it doesn’t mean there is consent.
Consent is a state of mind. Consent is active. Consent involves desire, curiosity, wanting, love, interest, participation… Consent is between two people. There is a matching process, a parallel course, desires intertwined, questions and answers.
Abuse is the absence of these things. Abuse is a teenage girl mechanically going through the motions so it will be over more quickly. The violence isn’t always overt (hitting, holding down), sometimes the violence exists merely in the absence of consent.
Without consent, it’s not sex. It’s abuse. It’s just that simple.
It’s a long journey back.